Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

the-name-of-the-roseThe Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco
First published as Il nome della rosa by Bompiani, 1980
This edition Vintage Books, 2004
592 pages
ISBN: 9780099466031
Source: Norwich Millennium Library

Read for Crimes of the Century, #1980book.

It is November 1327: the story unfolds in a magnificent abbey in the Italian mountains. Adso of Melk, a young Benedictine novice at a loose end during a period of political unrest, has been placed as assistant to William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission in Italy. Baskerville is an English Franciscan monk, a former inquisitor who has studied with Roger Bacon and William of Occam. The name is not the only thing Holmesian about the monk. He is also given to flamboyant (if dubiously deduced, or just plain lucky) displays of deduction.

‘it’s obvious you are hunting for Brunellus, the abbot’s favourite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes.’

Baskerville has come to the abbey to represent the theologians of the Emperor at a great debate to be held between envoys of the Pope (in 1327 based in Avignon rather than Rome) and the Franciscan order of friars. Part of his role is keeping the very precarious peace, and so as soon as he arrives the Abbot gives him a supplementary mission. A young monk named Adelmo of Otranto has been killed, and the culprit must be found before the envoys arrive.

And so William and Adso get under the skin of the abbey, meeting monks as diverse as the babbling friar Salvatore, the fanatical Ubertino, the defensive librarian Malachi, the Cadfael-like herbalist Severinus, the dogmatic Jorge of Burgos, and many more. Of course the abbey is a hotbed of theological intrigue and all sorts of sinful goings-on – plenty of motives to choose from, even before a second body turns up.

On top of this, the abbey has an immense and labyrinthine library full of secret texts in many languages, many of them heretical. Access to the books is strictly controlled by the librarian Malachi, but it soon becomes clear that one of them has somehow got out, and that someone is killing to get hold of it.

That’s the basics of what is a very complex novel, which is attempting to do much more than tell a crime story. The Guardian, for example, tells us that ‘Eco swells a gripping historical whodunnit with discourses on semiotics, faith and truth and a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy.’

‘Swells’ is the right word. 592 pages, full of this kind of thing:

‘Quintilian,’ my master interrupted, ‘says that laughter is to be repressed in the panegyric, for the sake of dignity, but it is to be encouraged in many other cases. Pliny the Younger wrote, “Sometimes I laugh, I jest, I play, because I am a man.”‘
‘They were pagans,’ Jorge replied. “The Rule forbids with stern words these trivialities: “Scurrilates vero vel verba otiosa et risum moventia aeterna clausura in omnibus locis damnamus, et ad talia eloquia discipulum aperire os non permittitur.”‘

Page after page of this. Grrr. Yet as I read, I found myself falling into the rhythm of the book a little more, swallowing vast swathes of text without stopping to become annoyed with Eco. I even enjoyed myself – there are some funny bits of debate, and a moving little romance between the inexperienced Adso and a village girl.

But did it really go in? Most of it I couldn’t claim to really understand, or, if I understood for a few moments whilst I was reading, I’d have trouble explaining it to somebody now. In my wilful ignorance I didn’t bother to look up the 99% of the Latin I couldn’t work out myself. And there is a lot of Latin. All I can say I gained is a flavour of the fervid religious debates of the period, and I’m sure I could have got this more easily and quickly elsewhere, the Wikipedia article on the Franciscans, for example.

Does all the talk make for ‘a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy‘? Maybe, although just of what the monks were thinking. I don’t believe it’s really possible to authentically capture the medieval mindset. We’re just not ill-informed enough, sick enough, cold enough or hungry enough to think medieval. And to be honest, Eco’s monks are bores. Very clever bores, bores who burnt people for being a different flavour of bore, but just bores. Eco could have got that across in far fewer words.

Is there ‘a gripping historical whodunnit‘ hiding in here? Stripped of all the science stuff, it reminded me of a Lovejoy book. Hunt for a macguffin, suspects with shifting loyalties, ending in a life-threatening climax. Even an unlikely seduction.

There is clearly lots in The Name of the Rose for a scholar to get their teeth into, but it’s been put in there on purpose, and then hammered home with 200 pages nobody needs to read. Once you are into the flow, it is readable, but I can’t promise you’ll think it worth the investment in time.

See also:

Postmodern Mystery: Yet our author would not be Umberto Eco, if the book wasn’t full of intertextual, intratextual, and countertextual twists. For Eco, another turn of the screw means another book within a book, and Eco gives us several additional turns here. Not only does the story involve texts, as well as texts that relate to other texts;  not only do manuscripts figure as possible clues, motives and weapons in The Name of the Rose; but even the narrative itself is reportedly drawn from a book the author found in 1968 that contained a 14th century text from a Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk.

Girl With Her Head in a BookThis is one of the most complex books that I have ever read. The first hundred or so pages were apparently deliberately written to seem opaque to the casual reader.  If you’re going to read The Name of the Rose then you need to be committed.  The unfortunate thing is that books like these are tricky for me during term time, but the summer holiday really helped in that regard.  To be honest, I liked having the chance to read a book that actually presented a certain intellectual challenge – it’s nice when an author actually has expectations of the reader.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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16 Responses to Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review. It’s a long time since I read it, but I do recall thinkng it was too much of a hybrid – Eco either needed to write a decent historical murder mystery, or some kind of treatise, but ended up trying to merge the two and I seem to recall thinking it just didn’t always work.


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    I love your candor here, Rich. There is definitely a lot here, and that can be very interesting. But I can see why you think Eco tried to do too much with this.


  3. realthog says:

    Gotta confess that I had much the same reaction to the book as you did. For years it put me off watching the movie; when I finally did so, I enjoyed it quite a lot.


  4. tracybham says:

    How brave of you to read this long book, but then it is on the CWA Top 100 list. It is one of the books that gives me pause when attempting to read from that list. (Which I have not done seriously yet.) The comments are interesting too. I don’t mind hybrid books if the non crime fiction element is of interest to me, in this case I don’t think it would be. And I have not seen the movie. Maybe I would like it. Who knows? Maybe someday I will both read the book and watch the movies.


  5. I’m a fan but I understand those who are not exactly ‘gripped’! I will say, despite being sorely tempted not to for fear of being pegged as some sort of bi-lingual snob, that it is better in the original Italian. I’ve read it both ways, so at least I feel confident in that much, though it is also hard-going in the original, no question about it. And yeah, if you have studied Latin (as I have), it’s a darn site easier to digest too! Definitely a one-off, either way 🙂


    • richmcd says:

      That’s interesting. I think the translation is so good, and Eco is such a master of language, that I often forget there must be an original Italian version! Out of interest, have you read Foucault’s Pendulum in English and Italian? How do they stack up? Foucault’s Pendulum is my personal favourite book (in that it’s the one I enjoy rereading most, even though I can see the flaws, especially the lumpy pacing) and The Name of the Rose is up there too. But I’m not a huge fan of Eco’s later novels. It’s like he stuffed so much into those two that he was forced to keep going back to the same thematic well.


      • My Dad’s been trying to get me to read PENDULUM for years but somehow I can never quite get the enthusiasm.


      • richmcd says:

        That’s a shame. From reading your reviews, I think you’d really like it if you can get into it: there are definite pacing issues (probably because it feels semi-autobiographical in parts, with Eco’s life spread between the main characters), but it really ramps up very nicely, and it’s the most interestingly and successfully postmodern of his books. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but I think Eco manages to pull off what I felt Gilbert Adair’s AND THEN THERE WAS NO-ONE tried but failed to achieve.

        And there’s a lot of Italy specific stuff between the 40s and 70s that feels convincing to me, but doesn’t have much resonance for me beyond good period detail, well told. I think someone with closer ties to the country would get a lot more out of it.


  6. Rebecca says:

    I saw the end of the movie, which I still remember, and it’s put me off taking on the entire book. I’d like a surprise if I read something so long!


  7. I must admit that I enjoyed the overall concept of the book more than the actual experience of reading it. The film is a lot more fun, even despite a slightly hammed up ending.


  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    Almost 600 pages ! Well, at least you had the courage to read this book. I’ll be afraid to even start it !


  9. richmcd says:

    It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy this one more. I agree with Sergio (I’ve only read it in translation, but I have studied Latin, so I wasn’t phased by that).

    The thing is, I’d disagree that there IS much padding. I don’t see how you can “strip out all the science stuff” because it’s key to the solution (and the false solution that William falls into).

    Okay, maybe we don’t need the long passage describing all the scenes on the door(!) but almost all of the debate is relevant to the semiotics that underpins the mystery. I think it has one of the cleverest motives in mystery fiction, because it’s completely alien to modern readers, but all the context Eco provides makes it understandable and almost inevitable. One of my all time favourite mysteries.


  10. Enjoyed your review! I read the book years ago, and had a similarly mixed reaction. I agree with Kaggsy’s comments above, too. I read Foucault’s Pendulum and hated it, one of the most pretentious books I’ve ever read, and ludicrously overlong IMO.
    So did Rose tell you anything about 1980….?


  11. There are lots of classics out there, mystery and other, that I certainly need to tap into. Nice review.


  12. Pingback: ‘It gets odder when Troy wears a jumpsuit’: #1980book roundup | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  13. Pingback: Lionel Davidson: The Rose of Tibet | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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